Short-term Missions Trips and Cultural Institutions

money and short-term missions

What is the best way for us to use our money to serve and promote the kingdom of God and the common good in our home places?

In a recent piece for Christianity Today, Doug Banister described one of the problems with short-term mission trips:

I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.

Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.

Banister went on to talk about all the things that the $3,000 used to send one teenager or college kid overseas could do in Knoxville. And Banister isn’t the only one rethinking the short-term missions trip. Banister raised many of the most common objections to short-term trips and they’re all sound, but I want to expand on his point just a bit.

It’s common for evangelicals in thinking about the best way to use their resources to look for discrete, one-time actions they can take with their money. So we can spend three grand to go on a trip to Poland or we can spend three grand to buy books for a local school or put a roof on a widow’s house. These are all worthy pursuits and no reader should think that I’m condemning any of them. But just as we can say “spending locally may be better than spending internationally,” on these sorts of outreach, I want to push it still further and say “spending on local institutions may be better than spending on discrete, one-time events.”

To take only one example, what if instead of spending thousands of dollars on mercy projects for area families living in poverty, we started spending money to set up a vocational training program to teach home improvement, maintenance, and other handy-man type projects? Obviously we’d still need to do something different to help the elderly widow who needs a roof (and that may well be simply buying the roof), but what if you hire someone to teach workshops for people in your area on doing general home improvement projects?

By approaching it that way, you’re equipping people to promote the common good of the city from the bottom up, rather than the top down with one well-moneyed social body throwing money at social problems. You’re also empowering them to take care of themselves as much as they’re able, rather than depending upon assistance from some well-intentioned patron who can quickly turn into a tacitly dangerous paternalist.

But we can push this idea a bit further too. As Christians, we believe that any social problem is at its roots a worship problem. People misplace their love and that drives them to making socially and individually destructive choices. So what if we pursue setting up programs and institutions that help shape our loves in healthier, Gospel-shaped ways? Toward this end, I can think of few investments more worthy of our support than setting up inner city Christian schools that offer affordable–or even free–tuition so that poor families can send their children to a school that will train them to live well in God’s world. (On this note, may works like the one being done at Restoration Academy continue to flourish.)

Next to that, we’ll need to have educated leaders in our local churches with that rare combination of deep knowledge of the Christian faith and church and of the unique realities of life in their particular community. This will mean having something like seminary-level theological education available locally to church leaders.

And yes, everything I’m proposing will cost a decent chunk of change. But, to take only one example, sending myself and five friends to Zambia six years ago cost American Christians around $24,000. As much as I enjoyed my time in Zambia, I can’t help wondering if there may have been better uses for that money. Suppose American Christians simply scaled back their short-term missions trips and used that money to build local institutions–how much money would that free up? If the stats cited by Banister are accurate, even a 25% reduction in short-term mission trips costs would free up $400 million. I can think of a few seminaries and universities that could use that money–and a few cities that could use schools, vocational training programs, and seminary-type education who could use it too.

(For further reading: CT has covered the issue in the past and Relevant looked at the topic earlier this week as well.)

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  • Christof Meyer

    Hey Jake, I don’t think we’ve ever met, but I think that’s a shame. I love what Matt and you (and the team) have done here, but rarely comment… Not sure if that’s good or bad.

    Anyway, it’s hard to find fault with your main conclusions – given the way you’ve structured the question. But I wonder if, perhaps, you have excluded some important success criteria.

    In particular, I’m thinking of the transformational power on individuals, of doing/attempting big things. Full Disclosure: I worked as a missionary in Europe for 5 years and came to see the ministry of short-term workers as having almost nothing to do with my local ministry (among the disenfranchised immigrant Muslim community) but, nevertheless, extremely important.

    Also, just as an aside I worry about the influence of the philosophical pragmatist’s on our teleology. We should be wary of judging an action’s virtue by it’s thriftiness. On a mostly related note, David Brooks just had an article about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/04/opinion/brooks-the-way-to-produce-a-person.html?_r=1&. Summary: Lives are not machines, our “output” is not the final determiner of goodness.

    Let me try to bring it home. Missions trips may be expensive, but that doesn’t make them bad. Comparing a life of service in your local community to an overseas Missions Trip might be a category error. And, based on my personal experience, people who go on dazzling experiences to faraway lands in the name of Jesus often come back “sparkling” somehow with a kind of wonder and imaginative power that is impossible to get elsewhere.

    I hope our faith is rich enough to afford the “luxury” of even extravagant expressions of devotion. Without this there are no pilgrimages, no monasteries, no cathedrals. And Judas will be proven sagacious when he said “this could have been sold and the money given to the poor.”

    • jakemeador

      Christof – Thanks so much for commenting.

      I wouldn’t argue with anything you said, except I would raise the question of scarcity. If we can do short-term trips framed in the terms you’ve described (in which they’re almost more pilgrimages than trips–which is probably an improvement!) and support local institutions, I’m all for it.

      That said, I always have that Wendell Berry quote, “We will have to learn to live more poorly than we do today,” in the back of my mind. If the evangelical church in America becomes less wealthy, I would want our financial resources to be focused on serving our local places for the most part. That’s not to say “cut all foreign spending,” but it is to say that we shouldn’t neglect necessary local institutions to fund foreign missions programs. If we lose those institutions, eventually the foreign missions don’t have anyone to support them. Supporting foreign missions at the expense of the local church’s well being is sawing off the branch you’re standing on.

      One other point to consider: I think to be a lasting, thriving movement every Christian movement needs to become localized and institutionalized. Which is to say that while foreign missions are important, there’s a sense in which the foreign missionary’s goal is to work him or herself out of a job because they succeed to such a degree that they’re no longer needed.

  • http://ryanmarkrichardson.wordpress.com/ Ryan Mark Richardson

    Jake:

    I’ve been thinking a lot through your points over the past few months – thank you for putting them into a coherent piece. Particularly, I’m curious to hear your thoughts more on expanding seminary-like education to local church leaders. I currently attend Reformed Theological online and it is a great school and love it dearly. The online nature of it has allowed me to stay involved in a local church and community. That said… The Christian approach to epistemology actually begins in faith and worship (Romans 1 – all men are created and know God, therefor what we do know is ultimately derived from Him, but what we worship will determine whether we suppress that knowledge to seek the knowledge of this world or whether we pursue Him) … with that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and way that seminary is handled needs quite a lot of Reform. This is all very James K.A. Smith-ish, but I think it is a point of concern that so often it is easy to learn a ton of stuff about God and the Bible and not have it affect our hearts, worship, or even actions.

    I would long-term like to see some of this sort of Reform in seminaries, but my thoughts on it are so scattered, I’m not sure even what that should look like necessarily. Do you (or anyone else) have thoughts on that?

    • jakemeador

      Ryan – In many ways you’re raising the issue I’d honestly like to spend the rest of my life addressing. I’m still sifting through a lot of things myself, but one of the moves that I think could be helpful is rediscovering some of our roots as Protestants.

      On the issue of theological education this would be particularly helpful b/c Calvin had a solution to this problem. The Genevan church in Calvin’s day was a four office system–deacons (poverty relief and mercy), elders (shepherding, discipleship, discipline), preachers (preaching), and doctors (theological training). I think it’d be a great idea for churches to start experimenting with this idea of reintroducing the doctor as a church office. Obviously that will be easier in some places than in others–solid megachurches and churches in more congregationalist denominations (like the SBC or Acts 29) could start pursuing this sort of thing pretty quickly and without much red tape. My denomination, the PCA, would have a trickier time of it since our Book of Church Order explicitly says we’re a two office denomination, even if we’re functionally three offices (ruling elder/teaching elder). So getting the BCO changed to acknowledge doctors in the church would be a tall task. So in the mean time I think we’d have to find ways to work around that issue, but there are certainly ways of doing that.

      Ultimately, what I’d love to see is a Presbytery having two or three doctors each who together coordinate theological training for the churches in the presbytery. That could look a lot of different ways, of course, depending on the presbytery. But the main thoughts I have are a) ed hours at churches, b) mid-week lectures, c) having one or two university or seminary-level courses being taught each quarter, and d) publishing a blog or quarterly journal of some sort.

      Those are some initial thoughts, obviously there’s a lot of work to be done on this though.

      • http://ryanmarkrichardson.wordpress.com/ Ryan Mark Richardson

        Thank you for your response, Jake. I really like what you are thinking through and I think it is extremely important, as the gap between seminaries and churches seems to have widened in recent years. I especially like you tying it to the local church which I think is a good way to tie together the theological training with the practical worship, mission, and everyday life of the church. I must admit I was thinking through how to reform the seminaries tackling it from the church side (which I still don’t think is a bad idea, and perhaps it is going to require some work on both ends anyway).

        As a student the thing I am pretty consistently confronted and convicted by is my ability to attend school, gain knowledge, and not let that lead to worship. And from what I understand from people who attend on-site locations is that it is just as difficult if not even moreso as essentially you attend classes by professors who teach from books that they have written, and then you live in dorm rooms with fellow students in those classes, and often you end up at a church where you are unable to effectively serve in a unique way because you go to church with those same students. I think, in addition to your thoughts on tackling it from the church side is the approach to have methods to encourage your students to not just become enraptured in their books, but to also be out in the world, serving, and cultivating personal worship as an application of a lot of (what can be) fairly abstract thoughts.

  • Matthew Loftus

    I like where you’ve landed on this, and I’ll only add that some missions organizations are looking at this very carefully, trying to ensure that short-termers serve & complement the long-term ministry needs. However, quite frequently this means “helping supporters in North America feel more attached to the ministry so that they’ll send more money.” There is also, of course, an enormous number of short-term trips with no such prudence that foster dependency & try to exploit the Westerners who visit, the locals, or both if possible.

    That being said, nowadays most long-term missionaries did short-term trips first and being physically present in a missions context is a tremendously powerful experience that helps people who live “ordinary” Christian lives back in suburbia keep their brothers & sisters elsewhere supported (with prayer, finances, communication, etc.)

    I do agree that a lot of the answer (especially for large masses of high schoolers) is short-term trips to the inner city, Appalachia, Indian reservations, or even a poor suburb that they would normally try to drive through with windows rolled up.

  • davestrunk

    The general direction of this post is well-meant: there is much local good that could be done that is often ignored. As a pastor, I see that.

    However, I believe we embark on a fool’s errand when we begin to compare forms of good in different places and times. For instance, there are many goods that can result from a short-term mission trip (including the construction of the very same institutions that could help in the U.S.): the cultivation of a global imagination, the visible grasp of utter poverty, the cognitive growth in dealing with more strange forms of pluralism, etc. Who can really say if this is better, long-term. There are many unseen effects of lots of attempts at good.

    Banister’s attempt (and I’ve been to his church several times, being from Knoxville…) to put a number figure on the types of good that could occur locally seems to be trying to determine the mind of God beforehand. In other words, this whole post assumes some faulty theology. One, that God is bound by limited financial resources- when we pit one form of good against another we have little faith. Two, that we can reasonably direct God’s sovereignty (ie what if God wanted and asked a church to do more short term trips?)- does God not get a say?

    Any church with a reasonable amount of resources ought, and probably will, have resources directed both locally and globally. Is it really up to you and me to determine how the money is best spent?

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I am pretty mixed on short term missions trips. I worked in Chicago with a lot of groups that brought in short term groups to work in ‘inner-city’ missions. In the end, almost all of the receiving churches decided to stop receiving those groups, even though many of the groups did bring resources that allowed them to do things they otherwise would not be able to do.

    That being said, many that do short term missions (when done well) are able to see God working in a different way. People often need to leave their homes and distractions and go somewhere else before they can learn to see how God works at home.

    My biggest issue however, is that short term missions is a miniscule amount in most churches budgets. The issue isn’t shrinking short term missions trips costs, it is re-evaluating the whole budget (including the giving.) Many churches could spend better. Almost all Christians could give more.

    And in the end God can do what he wants even when we don’t have the resources we think we need. I am all for being efficient. But I see Christian ministries frequently effient themselves to the point where there isn’t any actual resources to do the work that needs to be done.

    (Actual problem a couple weeks ago visiting a ministry I work with. My wife was teaching after school staff educational games, but the copier was down, the printer was down, there wasn’t any scissors, the only pen I could find was the one I brought. And this was a $5 million a year organization that kept trying to run more efficiently by cutting supply budgets. Which meant people didn’t have anything left to do the work they were being asked to do.)